CLASS ACT: Hollywood Bowl, Pasadena Pops open seasons

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

hollywood-bowl-post1 Hollywood Bowl’s summer season opens this month.


One of the joys of living in Southern California in the summertime is the plethora of outdoor music programs available. Virtually every genre is represented and the venues are part of the reason why tens of thousands of people turn out each weekend for music and accompanying picnics.

The largest, best-known venue with the widest programming options is HOLLYWOOD BOWL. If you haven’t been there in a few years (or at all), this is the year to check out the venerable venue.

The 38th annual Playboy Jazz Festival — one of the nation’s oldest and most important jazz programs — kicks off the summer season on June 11 and 12, with each day beginning at 3 p.m. George Lopez hosts and the lineup includes Fourplay, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Seth MacFarlane, and Janelle Monáe.

The official Bowl opening concert is June 18 at 8 p.m. Principal Conductor Thomas Wilkins leads his Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, with guest artist Steely Dan, and the Bowl’s legendary fireworks conclude the evening. The classical season begins July 12, with Music Director Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program that includes pianist Lang Lang.

One of the things that makes the Bowl so attractive is the wide number of ways to get to the Cahuenga Pass amphitheatre. Forget driving and the stacked parking at the Bowl. There are several off-site shuttle lots available and 14 Park and Ride locations throughout Southern California. The cheapest way is to take the Metro Red Line subway to the Hollywood-Highland stop and then either walk up the hill or take the free Bowl shuttle from a lot on Orange Avenue.


Style: "p25+-Ipro"THE PASADENA POPS opens its 2016 outdoor season at the bucolic Los Angeles County Arboretum on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein (pictured left), whose contract has just been renewed through the 2019 season (LINK), will lead a program spotlighting the music of Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee, with soloists Madelyn Baillio, Cady Huffman and Lynn Roberts supplying the vocals. (BTW: Baillio was recently chosen to star in NBC’s Hairspray Live!)

Feinstein has become one of the great local success stories. After a successful debut concert as a soloist with the Pops, he stepped into a musical leadership role with the orchestra when Marvin Hamlisch, who had been the Pops conductor, died unexpectedly in 2013.

Despite having virtually no conducting experience, Feinstein has grown substantially as a conductor He has shown an uncanny ability to build interesting programs and make them come alive with his storytelling and deep historical music knowledge. Moreover he has found in the Pasadena Pops an eager partner in expanding Feinstein’s perusal of “The Great American Songbook.”

Feinstein will lead three of the five concerts during the upcoming summer season on the tree-lined “Great Lawn” concert venue. He will also appear as soloist in “The Sinatra Project, Volume 2” on July 30. Resident Pops Conductor Larry Blank will lead the Sinatra concert and also a program of music by Billy Joel.



(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Lora Unger named CEO of Pasadena Symphony Association

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Unger2014-LRJust when we thoughts things had settled down at the The Pasadena Symphony Association the wheel turns again. The association, which, operates the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, today announced that it has tapped Lora Unger (right) as its new Chief Executive Officer, effective November 1. Read the Pasadena Star-News story HERE.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. For the past several years, Singpoli has sponsored the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor classics series.

Zdunek took over the association in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

Among the changes were moving the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor season from the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium into the more intimate Ambassador Auditorium, one of the world’s acoustic gems, in 2010. Two years later the Pops shifted into its summer home, the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The PSO also presents a holiday concert at All Saints Church, Pasadena.

Other changes were messier. Long-time PSO Music Director Jorge Mester left in acrimony and Pops leader Rachael Worby also stepped down. Eventually Zdunek and the association hired Marvin Hamlisch as the Pops’ principal conductors only to have him die suddenly in 2012. Despite the grief from Hamlisch’s death, Zdunek and the board took a gamble by hiring entertainer and historian Michael Feinstein to replace Hamlisch, a toss of the dice that has paid off well both artistically and financially.

The Pasadena Symphony’s music director, David Lockington, will lead his first concert in his new role on Nov. 1 at Ambassador Auditorium (LINK). Noted British conductor Nicholas McGegan will assume his new role as the symphony’s principal guest conductor January 17 (LINK).

In a media release, Lockington said he is “thrilled for Paul and absolutely delighted that Lora will be assuming the role of CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association.” Lockington pointed out that he has “worked with Lora for over four years. She is visionary, smart and an astute strategist. Her style is a stimulating blend of seriousness and humor which makes for a creative working environment.”

Unger, who is a trained violist, holds a BA in Music with a Minor in Business Administration from the University of Louisville, and received her MA in Arts Administration from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati College of Business Administration.

Prior to coming to Pasadena she worked with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Cincinnati, Modesto, and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestras in public relations, marketing and artistic operations. She was a League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellow with residencies at the Aspen Music Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. She is a member of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras and a presenter at their conferences

“Given the enormous contributions to our success that Lora has made for us, we’re delighted to elevate her to the position of CEO, following thoughtful deliberation by the Board,” said Kay Kochenderfer, president of the PSA Board of Directors, in the media release. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.

Read the full media release HERE.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Broadway with a twist from Pasadena Pops

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

What if an orchestra presented a summertime Broadway-themed concert and Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t show up? That’s what the Pasadena Pops almost did last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Of the nearly three-dozen songs on the program, only one was by the iconic duo. Instead, the Pops spotlighted four beautiful and talented Broadway female vocalists and one hunky (and talented) male. Along with delivering a first-rate program, they emphatically demonstrated that there’s been a lot of life on The Great White Way since R&H left the scene more than half a century ago.

The Pops’ resident conductor, Larry Blank, presided over a well-paced program and the orchestra provided stylish accompaniment throughout. The ensemble also got its moments in the spotlight with renditions of Song on the Sand from La Cage Aux Folles and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture.

However, the spotlight was on the vocalists: Susan Egan, Valeri Perri, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman and David Burnham.

There were several touching moments and a surprise during the evening. Egan, Perri and Saffran (with some well-time peacocks counterpoint) offered a poignant rendition of At the Ballet from A Chorus Line by the Pops’ late principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch. Later in the second half, Vroman delivered an operatic performance of If I Loved You from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, just two days after Richard’s daughter, Mary, died at the age of 83. In dedicating the performance to Mary Rodgers, Blank noted that she was involved in the R&H Foundation, which owns and licensed much of the music on the program.

The surprise was Egan’s powerful rendition of the world premiere of Every Time We Touch from an unproduced musical by Richard Kagan and Michael Jay. Kagan had been friends with Hamlisch for 48 years and was with him when Hamlisch died suddenly on August 6, 2012 at the age of 68.

As Blank related, Kagan had harbored thoughts of becoming a composer but after he heard Hamlisch play, Kagan recalls, “it changed my life. I was overwhelmed by his talent. I knew for me it was time to go into the insurance business.” For the next four decades, Kagan ran a successful life insurance business in L.A. but apparently he has had second thoughts about the musical theatre.

Burnham and Vroman provided one of the evening’s highlights with their heartfelt rendition of All I Ask of You from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Perri brought great emotion to Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, while Saffran displayed a gorgeous voice in I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

Although Judy Garland didn’t have a Broadway stage career, she figured prominently in the evening’s proceedings. Perri sang an arrangement written for Garland of Almost Like Being in Love from Brigadoon, while later Egan brought her unique touch to a medley of Garland songs from the movies, concluding with (what else?) Over the Rainbow.

• Now in its third season at the Arboretum, the Pops continues to settle in nicely. The video screens on either side of the stage seem to have much sharper definition this year and the camera work was, for the most part, quite satisfactory. The only oddity was that Perri’s purple gown showed up bright blue on the video, although the other ladies’ gowns seemed to translate well on screen.
• One major problem from previous years, a lack of lighting on the pathway leading to the south exit after the concert, has been rectified thanks to dozens of young volunteers armed with flashlights.
• Although not many people seemed to realize it, the Pops has “gone green” by publishing its playlists on its Web site ( and on a free app downloadable for tablets and smart phones. A limited number of paper copies were available last night.
• Fortunately last night was the only concert this summer where the Pops goes head to head with the California Philharmonic at nearby Santa Anita Racetrack. At least one patron got on the wrong shuttle and ended up at the Arboretum instead of the other location.
• Last night was also the only concert of the summer that didn’t invite Principal Pops Conductor Michael Feinstein, who returns on July 19 to sing music by George and Ira Gershwin with Blank again on the podium (LINK). Feinstein will conduct the final two concerts of the summer on Aug. 16 and Sept. 6.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Michael Feinstein appears with Pasadena Pops in four summer concerts

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

To no one’s great surprise, summer with the Pasadena Pops will be a Michael Feinstein affair as the singer-conductor-curator will appear in four of the five Pops programs at the Los Angeles County Arboretum beginning June 7.

The Pops’ gamble on hiring Feinstein as its Principal Conductor paid off big dividends last summer and the organization moved quickly to capitalize on that success in planning the upcoming season. Feinstein will conduct three of the summer programs and will appear as a singer in an all Gershwin-concert on July 19.

The concerts:
June 7:
Feinstein will lead a program of music by Harry Warren, Richard Rodgers, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and Alfred Newman, and the world premiere of a piece by André Previn, which was originally part of a movie score that never materialized. Vocalists Laura Osnes and Norm Lewis and pianist Armen Guzelimian will be guests.

June 28:
On the only program not involving Feinstein on stage, composer-producer-songwriter Tena Clark appears with Dionne Warwick, Sheléa Frazier, Sara Niemetz and the orchestra’s resident conductor, Larry Blank.

July 19:
Feinstein puts aside his baton to sing Gershwin and selections from other composers.

August 16:
Feinstein curates and conducts music from the silver screen — Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney. Debby Boone, Alan Bergman, Maureen McGovern and Kevin Early will also appear.

September 6:
In a program entitled “New York! New York!, Feinstein turns to music that celebrates the Big Apple. Patti Austin, Liz Callaway and Jeremy Jordan are on the program.

• The complete media release and artists’ photos are HERE
• For information and ticket ordering, click HERE

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops close season in style

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Vocalist Catherine Russell, conductor Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops lit up the night in an arrangement of Gershwin tunes at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. (Photo by Steve Sabel for the Pasadena Pops)

When the Pasadena Pops hired Michael Feinstein to replace Marvin Hamlisch as its Principal Conductor shortly after Hamlisch died unexpectedly on Aug. 6, 2012, the orchestra was taking quite a gamble. Although Feinstein is a prolific entertainer and musical scholar, he had never conducted an orchestra prior to the Pops’ opening night last June.

To judge by the summer’s results — notably that first concert and Saturday night’s season finale — that gamble has paid off in a jackpot-large way. According to management, attendance at the Los Angeles County Arboretum has been up more than 30 percent and season renewals for next season have increased more than 200 percent. It’s no surprise that the board wasted no time extending Feinstein’s contract through the 2016 season.

Feinstein has worked on the music of George and Ira Gershwin since pianist Oscar Levant introduced Feinstein to Ira in 1977. Since then, Feinstein has been researching, cataloguing and preserving unpublished Gershwin sheet music and rare recordings, including a six-year-sojourn in the Gershwin’s home.

Thus it’s no surprise that last night’s concert, entitled “The Gershwins and Me,” included 20 Gershwin tunes, many of which were performed in arrangements that had not been played before or at least since their premieres.

As has been the case in all Feinstein concerts, his commentary Saturday was erudite, insightful and witty, laced with fascinating factoids drawn from Feinstein’s relationship with the Gershwin family and Hollywood. What was different from the opening concert was how much more comfortable Feinstein seemed on the podium (at least judging from the audience side). His beats were concise, his cutoffs more expert, and he seemed to swing and thoroughly enjoy himself, particularly in the arrangements of four songs that Nelson Riddle made for Ella Fitzgerald.

Catherine Russell was a creamy soloist in that set, which began with Nice Work if You Can Get It and ended with The Man I Love. In the second half of the concert, Tom Wopat emphasized lyrics in a set that opened with Love is Here to Stay and concluded with I Got Plenty of Nuttin, the latter using an arrangement that Riddle wrote for Frank Sinatra.

The JPL Chorus (Donald Brinegar, conductor) offered spritely lyrics to I Got Rhythm and the orchestra delivered lush sounds throughout the evening. Among the instrumental soloists, Aimee Kreston, violin, and Bryan Pezzone, piano, were standouts.

Before the final scheduled number, Feinstein sang a winsome arrangement of They Can’t Take That Away From Me from the piano, which he termed a preview of the 2014 season when Feinstein will conduct and/or sing in four of the five Pops programs beginning June 7, 2014. Judging by the audience’s reaction, that date will be eagerly awaited.

• Last night was Feinstein’s 57th birthday; the orchestra and audience serenaded him with Happy Birthday prior to the concert.
• Among the celebrities in the audience, Feinstein introduced before the concert’s end Mark Gershwin and other members of the Gershwin family, Patricia Kelly (widow of dancer-singer-actor-director Gene), Ginny Mancini (widow of composer Henry), singer Debby Boone (also known to us old fogies as daughter of crooner Pat) and actress Betty White, who Feinstein noted is older than Rhapsody in Blue (look it up).
• The camera work was spotty most of the evening. Sometimes they got the correct soloist (albeit a note or two late); at other times they were totally off base, which can be disconcerting for those watching. Directing a concert is an art form in itself.
• The Pops will offer its annual free “Music Under the Stars” concert on Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the Pasadena City Hall plaza. The orchestra’s resident conductor, Larry Blank, will lead the program. INFO
• The Pasadena Symphony opens its indoor season on Nov. 2 at 2 and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium when newly appointed Music Director David Lockington will lead a program that will include what CEO Paul Jan Zdunek joked last night will probably be the final performance in 2013 of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (this year marks the centennial of the piece’s Paris debut and seemingly every orchestra in Southern California — and probably the world — has programmed it this year). Fortunately, it remains fresh and provocative each time I hear it. INFO
• Brinegar and the JPL Chorus opened the evening with The Star-Spangled Banner, accompanied by snare drum.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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